A funeral with a million mourners


I was on Habib Bourguiba Avenue around noon yesterday, Friday, February 8th.  If you were downtown then and were sporting a long black beard emblematic of Tunisia’s militant-Islamic Salafist movement, I can only say that you were a brave man.  For yesterday, liberal, left-wing and secular Tunisia was out in force.  It was mourning the socialist politician Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated three days ago – by persons of some extreme political and probably extreme religious persuasion – and who was laid to rest in Al Jellaz Cemetery on the south side of Tunis yesterday afternoon.


There seemed nearly as many women as men on the avenue – Belaid’s widow had requested that, in spite of Tunisian custom, female mourners should attend the funeral as well as male ones – and hijabs and other items of Islamic female attire were at a minimum.  Indeed, the vibe reminded me of how things were there just over two years ago, when crowds gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building at the avenue’s end to demand (successfully) the departure of old dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Back then too, the protestors had had a secular, liberal look about them.  On January 14th, 2011, there’d been no guys in beards, smocks and sneakers, no black Islamic flags, no chanting for the introduction of Sharia law – those things only appeared after the revolution, when the Salafists started to crawl out of the woodwork and make the most of their new-found freedoms under democracy (a concept, incidentally, they reject as being un-Islamic).


As I’ve said throughout the lifetime of this blog, the arrival of a government dominated by the moderate (it’s claimed) Islamic party Ennahdha emboldened the Salafists in their seeming mission to make life as miserable as possible for their less devout fellow-citizens.  The more aggressive they became, the less willing the government seemed to be to stop them, and so they became more aggressive still – targeting everyone and everything from pub-owners and dramatists to Sufi mausoleums and the American embassy.  Indeed, after some of those outrages, Ennahdha seemed to show more interest in prosecuting the victims – TV stations, artists, academics – than in prosecuting the perpetrators, which obviously encouraged the Salafists to behave even more badly.


Some believe that Belaid was murdered by the Salafists, who hated him because of his steadfast support for secular politics in Tunisia.  Some also believe that Ennahdha members themselves were embroiled in the assassination, since Belaid was a considerable thorn in their side too.


Yesterday on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, I wondered if Tunisia had changed at all in the past two years – and if it had changed, if it’d actually done so for the better.  The Interior Ministry building was now more fortified than ever, sealed off from the surrounding avenue by no fewer than three coiling layers of razor-wire, stacked precariously on top of one another.  The area inside the wire, immediately in front of the building, was choc-a-bloc with white police vans.  While I was standing there, a vagrant with a grimy beard and clothes that were little better than rags went past, pushing a trolley-cum-wheelbarrow contraption that was loaded with plastic bags bulging with rubbish.  The sight of this rubbish-scavenging hobo against the background of razor-wire seemed to uncomfortably sum up the economic and security achievements of Ennahdha since coming to power.


Also walking past me there was an elderly man in a suit, who had the tweedy and eccentric demeanour of a university professor.  He had two corners of the Tunisian flag knotted around his throat, so that the flag itself hung down his back.  He looked like a figure I might’ve seen two years ago during the revolution against Ben Ali.


As well as the collective sense of grief, there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear among the people I saw yesterday.  A helicopter chuntering to and fro above, like a big metallic bluebottle, did nothing to ease the tense atmosphere.  Neither did the presence of armoured riot policemen, a few of them wearing grotesque black rapist / terrorist-style balaclavas.  When I reached the intersection of Bourguiba Avenue and the Avenue de Paris, I noticed several people standing and staring fearfully upwards.  I followed their upward gaze and saw that a figure was perched on the roof of the building, about eight storeys high, on the corner across from the Hana Hotel – I got the impression the people on the street were afraid that this was a sniper.  I was spooked myself on a different section of the avenue when two motorcycles, both carrying passengers, came scooting along the pavement.  The two pillion-riders had rifles slung over their shoulders.


As it turned out, there were some disturbances – particularly when some opportunistic youths from a rundown neighbourhood near Al Jellaz tried to break into cars that’d been parked outside the packed cemetery, and were confronted by policemen overseeing the funeral.  (“Those kids were probably paid to do it by Salafists,” snorted a Tunisian acquaintance today.)  But overall, the day passed off with considerably less trouble than many had feared.


One thing is for certain.  Belaid’s tragic death and the mass grief expressed yesterday – I’ve heard claims that as many as a million people were out on the streets of Tunis paying their respects, and obviously many more followed the funeral’s intensive coverage on TV – have catapulted Tunisia back into the world’s headlines.  For most of the afternoon, for instance, these events constituted the main story on the BBC’s news website.  Thus, with so many eyes upon them globally, politicians here would be wise to tread extremely carefully.


Among those politicians, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali surfaced again yesterday afternoon and repeated his determination to dissolve the current government and replace it with a caretaker one, comprised of non-political ‘technocrats’, who’d steer the country on a steady course until new elections were held.  He’d first proposed this on Wednesday evening, to the great surprise of his party, Ennahdha – which promptly responded that no, the government wasn’t going to be dissolved.  Now those party members must be privately wishing that the ground would just open up and swallow their prime minister.


What is Jebali up to?  Does he have a cunning plan here that’ll rescue the country from its present political crisis?  Or is the plan designed to serve his own interests?  Or have recent events merely left him dazed and confused?  Time, I guess, will tell.  (http://www.kapitalis.com/politique/14376-hamadi-jebali-attache-a-la-formation-d-un-gouvernement-de-technocrates-malgre-l-opposition-d-ennahdha.html; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/5493-hamadi-jebali-to-announce-shortly-line-up-of-new-government-and-will-start-consultations-with-parties.)


Incidentally, it was reported yesterday – on the Facebook page of Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, who by a happy coincidence is also son-in-law of Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi – that the government has summoned Francois Gouyette, the French ambassador to Tunisia, for a bollocking.  This was in response to a comment made by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls following Belaid’s murder, about ‘rising Islamic fascism’ in Tunisia, a comment that Abdessalem and company interpreted as being unacceptable French interference in their country’s affairs.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/live-updates-fallout-from-leftist-politician-chokri-belaids-assassination/.)


Tunisians mindful of their country’s history must find this ironic.  The last time a major figure on the Tunisian political left was assassinated, it was in 1952 and the victim was Farhat Hached, who’d been the first secretary general of the country’s trade union organisation, the UGTT (which marked Belaid’s funeral yesterday with a one-day general strike).  In this capacity, Hached had focused the UGTT’s energies on winning Tunisia’s independence from France, making it a great rock of support for Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo Destour Party.  This was too much for the French.  In early December 1952, two carloads of assassins from a French paramilitary outfit called La Main Rouge (quite possibly supported by the French colonial administration) murdered Hached while he was at the wheel of his own car.  The first car fired shots into his vehicle, severely wounding him, and drove away.  When the wounded Hached managed to crawl out onto the road, the second car pulled up and its occupants climbed out and shot him again, finishing him off.  (http://www.opendemocracy.net/rob-prince/tunisia-siliana-and-heritage-of-farhat-hached-sixty-years-after-his-assassination; http://robertjprince.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/farhat-hached-and-the-struggle-for-tunisian-independence-2/.)


From ar.wikipedia.org


There may well be truth in what Valls has said; but for the French to go lecturing the Tunisians about fascism, given their own history of fascistically eliminating Tunisian leftists, lays them open to jibes about kettles calling pots black.


I know shamefully little about Tunisian history, but I suspect that one reason why Belaid’s murder has hit such a massive nerve here is because of how Farhat Hached and his fate three generations ago are engrained on the national consciousness.  Indeed I’ve heard at least one enthusiastic socialist describe Hached as ‘Tunisia’s Che Guevara’.  Seeing how his face is on billboards all over town today, I wonder if poor Chokri Belaid is going to become the new Hached – or even the new Che.


From www.lematin.ma


Here are a few of the more interesting pieces I’ve found on the Internet about Tunisia, and about Chokri Belaid, in the past few days:





Nice idea, Hamadi – now shut up

From en.wikipedia.org


I ended my previous entry with word that Hamadi Jebali, Tunisia’s prime minister, had just appeared on television and declared that the current government would be dissolved and replaced by one composed of ‘technocrats’, who’d keep the country running on automatic pilot until the holding of new elections.  Jebali’s announcement, it transpires, came as news to the other members of his party, the supposedly moderate-Islamist Ennahdha Party that’s the biggest player in the coalition government.  Jebali’s own deputy prime minister, Abdelhamid Jelassi, said subsequently that “(t)he prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party.”  To put poor old Mr Jebali firmly in his place, he added, “We in Ennahdha believe Tunisia needs a political government now.”  (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/fresh-crisis-in-tunisia-as-pms-party-turns-against-him-8485947.html.)


On the Internet today I’ve read speculation about what Jebali was up to when he announced this end-of-government-that-wasn’t.  Some online commentators praised him for trying to put the good of his country ahead of his own personal and party interests – the disappearance of the current Ennahdha-dominated government would certainly be balm for Tunisia’s sizeable opposition forces, who this week were outraged by the assassination of left-wing politician and lawyer Chokri Belaid.  Other commentators speculated that what Jebali was proposing was part of a Machiavellian plot, whereby he’d split Ennahdha in two and, as head of a new faction, secure more power and influence for himself.  Other commentators again suggested that his let’s-dissolve-the-government declaration was merely a case of Jebali running around like a headless chicken after Belaid’s murder.


I tend towards that last opinion.  For the same reason, I don’t really believe the conspiracy theories that have circulated since Chokri Belaid was gunned down outside his house on Wednesday morning – theories alleging that he died as a result of a secret and unholy alliance between Ennahdha (some have even pointed the finger at Ennahdha’s supreme leader Rachid Ghannouchi himself) and violent Islamic extremists.  For one thing, conspiracies involve intelligence on behalf of the conspirators, intelligence to plan and execute things – and governmental intelligence has not been much in evidence during the last year or so, judging from how Tunisia has been run.


However, one symptom of the government’s lack-of-intelligence has been its failure to tackle acts of violence and intimidation by Salafists and other extremists, which has only emboldened them in their attacks on anything offending their ultra-delicate sensibilities: politicians, journalists, academics, dramatists, painters, galleries, campuses, bars, Sufi mausoleums, foreign embassies, foreign schools…  And the anything-goes climate that’s resulted from the government’s incompetence and / or complacency certainly did contribute to Belaid’s murder.  So I suppose, in a way, the government is implicated.


Meanwhile, tomorrow – Friday – sees both Belaid’s funeral in Tunis and a general strike organised by the UGTT, the Tunisian trade union body, in protest against his death.  And of course Friday is also mosque-day.  I suspect that in the many mosques that have been infiltrated and taken over by Salafists during the two years since the revolution, hellfire-and-brimstone preachers will be ordering their faithful to take up arms and defend Islam against the godless communists, socialists, liberals, secularists and atheists who are stalking the streets outside.


The last general strike in Tunisia took place in 1978, during the rule of Habib Bourguiba, and it resulted in the arrest of the entire UGTT leadership and a death toll, officially, of 42.  (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/tunisia/politics-1978.htm.)  Unofficial estimates of the number of people killed are much higher, however – one Tunisian acquaintance today told me it had been about ‘300’.  Let’s hope that what happens this Friday is a lot less bloody.


No news is good news… Oh

From www.lapresse.ca


Tunisia had been relatively quiet of late, at least, in comparison with the turmoil that’s beset Egypt in the past months.  Recently both Tunisia and Egypt celebrated the second anniversary of their revolutions, against hated dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak respectively.  But while the latter country marked the date with riots, bloodshed and fiery resentment against the autocratic rule of Mubarak’s Muslim Brotherhood replacement, Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia seemed somehow to muddle along – give or take a few strikes in the country’s more economically-depressed areas, some occasional demonstrations, and plenty of carping about the post-revolutionary Tunisian government, which is dominated by the supposedly-moderate Islamist party Ennahdha.


Things could be a lot better, I thought while I went about my daily life in Tunisia, but still…  No news is good news.


Then this morning two motorcycle-riding assassins fired several bullets into the head and neck of Chokri Belaid, general secretary of the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party, co-founder of the opposition coalition the Popular Front, human rights lawyer, leading left-winger and secularist, and a particularly vocal critic of Ennahdha, while he was leaving his Tunis home to go to work.  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/06/tunisian-politician-shot-dead; http://www.lapresse.ca/international/dossiers/crise-dans-le-monde-arabe/tunisie/201302/06/01-4618809-tunisie-le-chef-de-lopposition-a-ete-assassine.php.)  By the time I entered my own workplace this morning, my colleagues had learned of Belaid’s death and were in shock.  His party wasn’t the biggest player in Tunisian politics but he was respected – he’d been, for example, a courageous critic of Ben Ali’s regime when it’d suppressed miners protesting in the phosphate-mining region of Gafsa in 2008.  (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/02/20132610565078813.html.)  And there was general revulsion that a leading voice of the opposition in a supposed democracy could be silenced so ruthlessly and that his killers could strike with seeming impunity.


Belaid’s family were quick to blame the Ennahdha party itself.  The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, associations (some would call them militias) comprised of Ennahdha party supporters and religious militants that have sprung to prominence in the past year, have form when it comes to harassing government opponents.  Only last weekend, there were claims of attacks by the Leagues against opposition gatherings in Kairouan, Gabes and the Lac suburb in Tunis (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/04/political-violence-targets-opposition-alliance/).  And Ennahdha has been accused of quietly directing them in their acts of violence and intimidation.


Even if Ennahdha weren’t complicit in Belaid’s death – and plenty of people here believe that they were – it’s clear that they’ve failed miserably in dealing with the violence committed by extremist elements, usually ultra-Islamic Salafist elements, that’s blighted Tunisia in the last two years.  Prior to his assassination, Belaid himself had received death threats from the country’s extremist fringe.  As Tunisia’s Communist Workers Party leader Hamma Hammami commented today, “We have already warned that this security breakdown in Tunisia would target him, given the government leniency towards political crime.”  By the mid-morning, a friend of mine who’d checked out the Internet reported that hard-line Islamic websites were gloating already about Belaid’s murder.


Another Tunisian acquaintance today expressed a common and bitter frustration about the behaviour of the ruling party since it came to power.  “I hate Ennahdha,” she exclaimed.  “I hate how they’ve split this country, claiming that if you don’t support them you can’t be a good Muslim.”


By the late morning, thousands of people sympathetic to the opposition’s cause had gathered on Tunis’s central Habib Bourguiba Avenue in front of the Ministry of the Interior building – ironically the same site where mass protests two years ago had persuaded Ben Ali to get on a plane and flee the country – and were calling for the Ennahdha-led government to go.  Before long, riot cops, armoured vehicles and the inevitable hail of teargas canisters had appeared on the avenue too.  Meanwhile, there were reports of protestors trashing Ennahdha offices in towns like Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and Monastir (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/live-updates-fallout-from-leftist-politician-chokri-belaids-assassination/).


Around lunchtime, I noticed a number of my colleagues hurrying towards the office windows and out onto the office balcony.  I followed them and found myself looking down upon a long, chanting procession of people who were marching on the avenue below.  Prowling slowly along in the very middle of the procession, with marchers flanking either side of it, was an ambulance draped with a Tunisian flag.  Chokri Belaid’s remains, it transpired, were inside the ambulance and those marchers were providing an escort.


A little later, I was eating lunch in a local café.  The café’s TV had been put to the France 24 channel and it showed footage of a dense crowd of demonstrators, in front of the Interior Ministry building on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, who were being bombarded by tear gas canisters.  While those people fled from view of the TV camera-lens, a swirling grey teargas cloud slowly and inexorably expanded until it had engulfed the entire screen.  Then footage from elsewhere on the avenue showed the arrival of Belaid’s ambulance – the crowd escorting it was by now larger than ever.  By an ominous coincidence, the weather outside my café turned stormy at the very same moment – rain suddenly pelted down on the road, seemingly out of nowhere, and a great squall suddenly overturned the giant parasol outside the café doors and nearly sent it rolling into the middle of the traffic.


Although leading lights in Ennahdha, like prime minister Hamadi Jebali and the party’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi, spoke to journalists during the day and condemned what’d happened, their condemnations failed to convince many Tunisians that they weren’t – intentionally or, through negligence and incompetence,  unintentionally – responsible for Belaid’s murder.  “Rachid Ghannouchi better not come to my brother’s funeral,” snarled his sibling, Abdel Majid, to a reporter.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/fears-of-escalating-violence-after-assassination-of-opposition-leader/.)


Tonight I hear reports that Jebali has announced the dissolution of his government, which will be replaced by a ‘non-partisan government of technocrats’.  This supposedly will hold the reins of power until new elections take place (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21359260; http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/02/20132683528345786.html; http://www.kapitalis.com/politique/14335-hamadi-jebali-annonce-la-constitution-prochaine-d-un-gouvernement-de-technocrates.html).  What the outcome of this will be is anyone’s guess.  I find myself thinking of the old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” a sentiment that certainly appears to have been foisted upon the inhabitants of modern Tunisia.  That saying, I understand, was never intended to be a blessing.  It was meant as a curse.